Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder from University of Chicago made an experiment asking subway commuters to strike up a conversation with a stranger. In the result they concluded that talking with strangers actually increases the level of individual’s happiness.
Is it really a surprise? We are made to seek love and it’s hard to obtain from your mobile.
I have a shameful secret: I was a shrinking violet no longer than 40 months ago. I couldn’t talk with strangers. It was a weird kind of dysfunction. I could give a training to the group of people. I could talk to the group of people in my church. I could approach any person, I had legitimate business with, like asking a clerk for help. But I couldn’t start a personal conversation with a stranger.
I knew that this weakness limited my social life. I decided to change. It took me several months to learn how to talk with strangers. In the process I learned some profound lessons.
Four life lessons I learned by talking to strangers
I was literally paralyzed in the presence of attractive women. During the time of my overcoming shyness practice I noticed a lady who was travelling the same train; I saw her almost every morning. I figured out a few ways to start the conversation, but I never mustered the courage to do so. I perceived her not only as pretty, but also independent and assertive.
After a few months I discovered she worked in the same company. It created even more occasions for me to speak with her, but my shyness always prevailed. Every time I talked myself out of initiating the contact. Later on, the train’s timetable changed, my working schedule became a bit hectic and I didn’t see her for about a month.
One day I noticed that this gal was travelling in the same bus from work. We both had to walk the distance to a train station. I caught up with her and started conversation with the most lame line ever: “So, you work in the same company, don’t you?” We chatted the whole way to the train station about work, commute and the shoddy city’s district where the train station was localized. She was a perfectly normal woman, approachable and nice. For months all that hindered me from starting the conversations were my internal insecurities and the prejudices about her person.
Wow, attractive women are just as everybody else.
Finding 1: They are not who you think they are
Most of my interactions with strangers took place in the trains. During another commute I asked the elderly lady next to me about the book she was reading. It was about families raising handicapped kids. I discovered that she is a social worker who takes care of such families. This was one of the deepest conversation I have ever had with a stranger. We talked about love, life, death, philosophy, struggles, honesty and God.
It was a profound experience that I will always cherish in my heart.
Finding 2: They have a deep internal life, just like you
Coming back from work I noticed a girl who was reading one of my favourite books—Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. When we disembarked from the train I started the conversation with a simple: “Am I mistaken or you were you reading Ender’s Game?”
Did I mention I’m an avid reader? Well, that woman was a good match for me. I walked her for the next several hundred yards and then we stopped and talked about books for 10 minutes. We were chatting like we had known each other for years. We exchanged the titles of favourite books and names of authors. I felt like I had found a long lost friend of mine.
We had got to know each other just 20 minutes ago!
Finding 3: Anyone can be your soulmate
My most profound encounter with a stranger was when I asked one lady what she was praying for. She sighed very heavily and admitted that she was praying for her grandsons. One was a cardiac patient and the other autistic. She told me also about their parents’ financial hardships. Their dad quit his career to take care of his sons full-time.
I was deeply moved by that story. I started to support them through a non-profit organization. They absolutely had no idea who was I and were puzzled by those unexpected donations. They remarked about them to the grandmother. She associated me with the city I lived in, but we had no contact with each other.
One day we met in a train when I was going back from work and she was returning from visiting her grandchildren. We chatted the whole journey. We discovered that we were both active in church communities. We exchanged phone numbers and kept in contact.
My friend was to become a consecrated widow and she invited me for the ceremony. There I met her daughter, son-in-law and grandsons for the first time. It was the very moving moment. Both her daughter and I shed some tears of gratitude and joy. We prayed for each other.
About a month ago doctors discovered that my friend had metastasis. She had a pancreatic cancer seven years ago and she survived to the amazement of her doctors. They were sure this time it’s her end. I prayed for her with my church community. The next examination found no trace of metastasis.
Finding 4: The world is full of wonders and most of them have human form
Reaching out beats indifference
My interactions with strangers expanded my horizons. I experienced that each person is similar to me: an inaccessible and lone island from the outside, but internally thinking and feeling all the time. Those empirical encounters changed me. I no longer judge others looking for the signs of threat. I truly accepted that all people are my brothers and sisters.
Reaching out and interacting is better than indifference. Indifference is static. Contacts with others invigorates growth. I learned that each of us is the same, but unique. Each of us has tender feelings. Each of us is hungry for love and eager to share it.
All I needed was to reach out and ignite this spark of love between us. I encourage you to do the same.
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